How did this get made?
After several delays and a change in distribution company, Andy Serkis's Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is now out on Netflix. And it's now clear why it didn't get a theatrical release: As stunning and well directed as this adaptation of The Jungle Book is, there is no way parents would have allowed their kids to see this. Andy Serkis was crazy to make a gritty and bloody adaptation, and it is insane that it was rated PG-13, but that’s exactly what makes this version entertaining. Prepare for a whole new generation to be traumatized by what looks like a children's movie.
From the opening scene, Mowgli wants us to know this will not be the sweet, funny, sing-along version of the tale you’re used to. We begin with the brutal murder of Mowgli's parents at the claws of the man-eating tiger Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch, playing an even more evil version of Smaug the dragon). You thought Khan throwing that wolf over a cliff in Jon Favreau's version was unexpectedly dark? Well how about a tiger jumping at a frightened family and then mauling the mother to death? Worst yet, the murder occurs just barely off-screen to maintain a PG-13 rating, but then when the black panther Bagheera (Christian Bale) finds Mowgli, he's bathed in the blood of his dead mother. This culminates in a brutal battle that challenges Mowgli's moral compass, as the film skips the use of fire and goes straight to a ferocious showdown between a tiger and a knife-wielding child. Nothing says kid-friendly like a knife fight!
From there, any similarity with the previous adaptations is just a bare necessity, as we still get to follow Mowgli's struggle to fit in as a wolf, being bullied by his pack for being different and hanging out with the panther and the bear who talk. Oh, and the kidnapping monkeys are also here, but instead of a jazz number, they try to kill Bagheera and Baloo. Speaking of, this Baloo (voiced by Andy Serkis) has no intention of singing and relaxing by the river, as he is a horribly scarred and droopy-mouthed drill sergeant who mumbles every word like he's drunk. Bale's Bagheera also gets a new backstory that reflects Mowgli's journey, but like everything else in the movie, it's so grim that any children who witness it will likely never want to go to the zoo again.
Where Disney's live-action version emphasized Mowgli's humanity and how it made him special, Andy Serkis and first-time screenwriter Callie Kloves make it a point to show you that Mowgli (wonderfully played by Rohan Chand) doesn't belong with either man or wolf. For the first half-hour, he only walks on all fours, which makes him slower than all the other wolves in his class (Baloo is also a teacher for the cubs) and puts him at risk of expulsion from jungle school.
Kloves not only shows the dark side of the characters, but most specifically the serial killer in everyone. In a disturbing scene, we see Bagheera training Mowgli to hunt, telling him to show respect to his victim by staring straight into its eyes as the soul departs the body. Oh, and the man-eating tiger? He's not only obsessed with killing the man cub before he grows to be a fire-wielding man, but wants to straight up mutilate him. Shere Khan taunts Mowgli by repeatedly telling him how he wants to drink his blood--"The man cub's blood will run down my chin!"--and how he loved the taste of his mother's blood.
Andy Serkis proves he's not only adept at doing motion-capture, but he's also determined to push the limits of technology to tell a story. He moves the camera in impossible angles, down cliffs and through caves. One highlight of the film involves Mowgli hiding in a lake, before looking up at the surface to find a blood-soaked Khan, as the water he drinks turns crimson red. Unfortunately, Serkis pushes too far into showing the performances from his cast of A-list actors. Not only does the CGI often dive into "uncanny valley" territory of real-but-not-quite with the facial animation, but the landscapes look rough at times.
The weakest part of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is that it must follow the established plot points we already know by heart. While the tone and some of the characterizations are different enough to justify the retelling, it isn't until the 1-hour mark (Mowgli going to the human village) that the film finally shines and proves that it has something new to say. After Mowgli gets to the village, he befriends a British hunter played by Matthew Rhys, who was hired to hunt down Shere Khan. While the rest of the village teaches him about local traditions, dance and food, the hunter teaches him how to throw a knife. While we have seen previous adaptations dealing with Mowgli being a bridge between two world, this film truly shows us both worlds colliding, and how exactly Mowgli connects and saves both. If only the script had dived into this earlier instead of waiting until the last 40 minutes.
It is baffling that this version of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle ever got made. It is insane that the film got a PG-13 rating. It is mind-blowing that this is actually getting released. But here we are. This film takes too long to get going, and has some uncanny CGI. But it's also a brutal retelling of a classic story that shows just how dangerous the world is, and how you have to be the same if you want to survive.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Andy Serkis's directing|
Takes a while to truly shine
|Strong performances by Rohan Chand and the A-list cast||Plot often feels familiar|
|Insanely brutal and violent fight scenes||Uncanny CGI|
|An elephant gets revenge against a poacher|
|Best "Khaaaaan" cry since 1982|